Local Surfer to Ride Waves of Goodwill in North Korea

Surfing the Nation

It’s possible veteran surfer Cliff Graham has never had a surfing pupil so determined to conquer the waves of the ocean blue than a young man known as Peck.  

The 54-year-old Malibuite has instructed novice and experienced surfers across the globe during his 25 years traveling and living in different locales, but Graham said the inexperienced surfer he worked with in the surf of the Sea of Japan last August was especially full of energy. 

“He was a little overweight, so I didn’t know if he had any core strength, but the guy was passionate about learning something new,” Graham said. “He would be exhausted, and I would say, ‘maybe we should stop,’ and he would say, ‘no, I’m going to get this.’ He was unstoppable.” 

Graham’s dispensing of wave riding knowledge to Peck was in the spirit of goodwill, but occurred under the most intense of circumstances. The humanitarian was teaching the sport of surfing in North Korea, which Graham described as “really touchy.”

The husband and father of two girls was one of 18 travelers who spent over a week in the most isolated country on the globe teaching surfing and skateboarding as part of Wahiawa, Hawaii-based Surfing the Nations’ goodwill effort of uniting people from different cultures. 

Members of the nonprofit, public-spirited group, along with Graham, will be in the rogue state again from July 28 to August 11 to strengthen the relationships they forged with the North Korean travel guides that showed them around the reclusive country’s largest city, Pyongyang, last year.  

In the nation’s capital, Graham said his group saw North Koreans carrying out their daily lives. They also saw skate parks, a ski resort and an indoor water ride — all while under the watchful eyes of the local guides. 

The Surfing the Nation crew got the chance to build bonds with their guides while teaching them one of the hippest sports around at Majon Beach, a resort area. 

Graham was paired with Peck — an English speaking guide. The experienced surfer said he was amazed with how Peck took to surfing.

“He was gung-ho,” Graham said. “I loved that.” 

Although the waves were a maximum of three to four feet high during the trip last summer, Graham said being near the ocean allowed him and the other Surfing the Nations members time to bond with North Koreans. 

Once, a surfer from Hawaii who spoke Korean convinced two couples to join the group on the beach for a surf lesson. Another bonding moment was a day when the water was flat. After a member of their group found a sand dollar, Graham decided to look for two for his daughters. After wading through water for about two hours, Graham found two and showed them to a female guide. 

“The lady had never seen a sand dollar,” Graham recalled. “She said, ‘wow did you paint that?’ I said, ‘no. That’s how it was created.’ Then she asked if I could find her one, so I went back out and found a beautiful one to give her.”

Graham said one day the group visited a newly constructed wave pool. He said the surfers put a surfboard in the water and the guides all tried to climb on the board at once. 

“We had to slow them down,” he said. “They were smiling and saying how awesome it was.”

Graham said the time spent doing recreational activities with the guides was important, because at other times, like during meals, the guides were quiet and kept to themselves. After one meal, Graham grabbed Peck’s hand and had a moment of reflection. However, the surfer is unsure of the effect the moment had on the guide. 

Hawaiian Tom Bauer founded Surfing the Nations 19 years ago in order to spread a message of love and hope and aid underserved communities by way of surfing. The group’s benevolent efforts almost mirror Graham’s, who has been to over 50 countries on humanitarian missions.

The group donated surfing and skating items during the trip last year. The crew is hoping to donate more of the same to people in the country this year, so they are asking for donations of skateboards, skate equipment, spring/wet suits, surfboards, surf books and any other surfing equipment.  

Graham believes the North Korean guides saw his group as fun and peaceful, and he is looking forward to strengthening the relationships developed last summer. 

“You go somewhere, you make an acquaintance,” he said. “You go back; you make a friend. I am looking to strengthen the good they see in us.” 

Graham said if he sees Peck he will give him a big huge and hopefully have a gift in hand.

“It would be great to see if Peck has gotten better at surfing,” he said. “You let your guard down when you are doing something new. You can’t act like something you are not. He was just full of energy.”


For more information or to donate, visit www.surfingthenations.com or call Graham at 310-779-6577.